Merlin Mann is a writer, speaker, blogger, podcaster and student of the creative mind. He's the creator of 43Folders, a popular web site devoted to time, attention and creative work, as well as the man behind such varied projects as The Merlin Show, Kung Fu Grippe, 5ives, the 43Folders podcast, one-third of the crazy-successful comedy podcast You Look Nice Today, and lord knows what else. He's also currently working on his first book, Inbox Zero. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
Oh, man. The thing is, if you're like me and you hear the word “guru,” you expect it to be in a headline with either “swindle” or “ponzi.” It's a tremendous compliment when people say that. I think people say that because the 43Folders web site became fairly well known for trying to help people with the same kinds of problems that I have historically suffered from. It becomes a little bit of an albatross at a point, because — I'm not sandbagging — I honestly don't consider myself anywhere near the level of expertise that would qualify me as a guru. I think the reason people like what I do — I hope — is because I'm not saying, “Here's how to be great like me.” It's like, “Here's how to hopefully suck less, like me, some days.” For the kind of stuff I'm talking about, that's pretty different than a lot of the “gurus.” I just don't want to give people the wrong idea.
How much was that the need that 43Folders tapped into when it first became really successful? How much was that honesty part of it — or what need were you tapping into with the site?
There's a couple parts. One is definitely is the timing. It's funny; there's these certain things that come along where, after it's been around a while, you start to think, “Oh gosh, that's probably been around forever.” You hear Nirvana and you go, “Oh my gosh, how have we not had Nirvana forever? It seems so obvious now.” At the time, it seemed pretty crazy to have a web site about Mac software and life hacks and personal productivity and these goofy programs like Quicksilver that I like a lot. At the time I thought, “This has got to be the most insane idea in the world.”
Different people liked the site for very different reasons. I think I really hit a zeitgeist; I was standing in the right line at the right time. The topics of attention management and wanting to deal with this feeling of being overwhelmed by information and calls on our attention became a hot topic around the time I started doing it. I think I helped contribute to the popularity of those ideas, but I think it was good timing. The voice was part of it. I think that's true for blogs; I think that's true for podcasts; it's definitely true in radio. A lot of people don't care about a topic as much as they care about the voice of the person talking about it, for better or for worse. I hope that's why people enjoy it.
When I first became a reader of your site and when a lot of my friends did, we came to it because these topics have a very broad appeal. Who doesn't want to be more productive? But I found myself virtually among your fans, and what I saw around me was a lot of guys with chunky glasses. They love Apple products and they like to write in their Italian notebooks and they care a lot about the kerning of the font Helvetica. Could you enrich this mental image I have? Who are these people?
That's interesting. So you're doing some audience segmentation? You'd say that's part of my demo?
I have friends who read your side and who listen to and watch what you do, and they don't wear the glasses, don't think much about design and don't think very much about kerning. They see these guys, the most visible of your fandom — who are they?
That's a terrific way to put it, because I would consider it something of a cognitive bias. You're going to see the talky people from Brooklyn with the thick glasses who write for Pitchfork. What you're not going to see is the very heavy shut-ins who can't leave their mom's basement. They organize their Dungeon Dice. That's really the broadest part of my demo. I've been that person, and to a large extent I still am that person.
You know what it is? It's funny. The Apple stuff — I've heard some people call it the “idiot tax” that you pay for being an Apple fan. I say that without a hint of irony; I think it's true. In addition to being an early adopter who's often penalized for being an early adopter, I also buy lots of Apple stuff that I could get in a commodity format for less. Without getting into the usual platform turf war, I will say that I think people are attracted to Apple stuff because they like a little bit of extra polish and having a mediated Catholic experience with technology. They don't want to have too much hands-on experience; they want someone to make good decisions for them. Apple's certainly not the only company where this relationship exists, but I think those are the kind of folks who are very interested in design, like you say, and who are maybe a little anal-retentive.
I think the broader appeal of what you might call the life hacks part of it — and again, I always have to credit Danny O'Brien. Danny O'Brien's life hacks stuff was the biggest inspiration for the site, above anything else, far and away. That stuff really appeals, for good and bad reasons, for the good reason of: we're trying to find modest ways to feel a little bit more in control of our life, and a little bit more hooked in to the stuff that matters to us. The downside of it is borne out by the thousands of sites pooping out nonsense on blogs every day. It's easy to get wound around the axle with all that nonsense if you don't really understand why you're doing it.
Finally, the thing I've started to realize about all this stuff — the thing that obsesses me now — is the ultimate hack, if you like: learning when you have enough information about anything to just get going with it. That's why I don't post as much on the site unless I have something to say. Increasingly, I don't want to overserve the audience who want tips on what pencil to buy. I don't want to help people buy notebooks; I want to help them write great stuff in the notebooks. That was a long, long answer.
You mention shut-ins who can't get a lot done and form a lot of your audience as well, and how you once were that yourself. This opens up something I really want to ask about. I talk to friends, avowed Merlin Mann fans, and they —
I hear about these people. I never meet them.
They're too scared. Too scared.
Could it be a mass hysteria? I don't think that exists. I think that's a made-up thing.
I may know the only ones, but I talk to them. They seem to envision you as a man who was born in 2004, already a thirtysomething, already riding high on 43Folders. Have you cultivated the man-without-a-past, or what's going on here?
Oh gosh, no. This is just one part of a lifetime. I'd never really thought of it this way, but I am extremely bored by résumés. This came out of working with a lot of engineers and, for lack of a better word, technologists, but I really like the idea of a meritocracy, where, sure, you want to have things you're proud of that you've done, but in the same sense, a writer is only a writer when he or she is writing. I think we're all as good as what we're doing right now, in some ways.
And people don't really care. Have you met these people, the first thing they want to do is give you their card? That's okay. I understand. You're networking or whatever. I'd rather just have a conversation, and to me that's what I'm doing. I'm just talking to people. I've made no attempt to cover that up. Colin, I've been a basket case my whole life. There's no question about it. I used to play in bands. I almost flunked out of high school. I had to beg to get into college. I did a lot of fast-food jobs. I lost my father at a very young age so I kind of grew up as a latchkey kid in Ohio. Ask me anything. I've made a lot of terrible, terrible decisions, like, to this very day.
What specifically is important to get out there about you — and this is admirable, I think — is that you started 43Folders with the aim of publicly working on things that you sucked at. I want to know how bad you sucked.
You know what it is? There's good days and bad days. I think that's true for anybody. When I say it was good timing, I think it was good timing not just for the site and for the idea of success — not to sound immodest, but I had no idea this site would become as popular and as successful and ultimately career-changing for me as it was. I had no idea. As far as my own timing, I learned about Danny O'Brien and the life hacks stuff. Not long before that, I learned about David Allen's Getting Things Done.
I am absolutely not the kind of person who sits around and reads self-help books. I've read a few, and they for the most part just make me disgusted. But if I go back in my head and think about what made me realize I really needed to work on this stuff was the time I was working as a project manager, and I just felt like all of the tools were failing me. I felt like my skills were failing me. I felt like, given that we were all just basically moving information around, it became crazy to me how much of our day was eaten up with all this meta-work. Planning meetings, canceling meetings.
Have you ever tried to plan, like, a phone call with eight people? Have you ever tried to do that? That's the kind of thing I was doing for five different projects, and pretty soon it really felt like I was losing my mind. It was trying to shoot a bullet with a bullet. In retrospect, I could sound really sage about this. What I realized at the time was, “I need to get some help with this.” I didn't have anything like the kind of larger view about it that I do now, since I've had the freedom to think about this stuff a lot. But at the time, I just realized, “Hey, I need some tricks here.” What I now realize is like defensive driving. “I need a way to not get run off the road every day.” That's why an obsession with e-mail and an obsession with all these time-saving applications — that's where it came from.
How much did I suck? I started to feel like — I don't like that word “effective,” I think it's a dumb word, but — I felt really ineffective. I felt like, although I was working really hard and trying really hard on my web development work and my project management work, I just felt like I wandered around a lot and wasn't really accomplishing much. I'd get to Friday feeling kind of blue about what I'd accomplished. I just didn't like feeling that way.
When it came to posting about your failures and how you might address them on the web, where did the idea — I don't want to ask where the idea came from, since nobody can ever really trace that back, but — what was the decisive point where you decided, “I've got to put something online that talks about how bad I am at this?”
That's not the way I thought of it. You can call it whatever you want in retrospect, but what 43Folders was about in the early days was three or four topics. It was about the larger issues of personal productivity, yeah. It was very focused on things like David Allen's Getting Things Done, very focused on a more rarefied idea of Danny O'Brien's life hacks stuff, and was focused on a couple applications that were changing the way I used my Mac, especially Quicksilver. I could say it's about Macs and productivity, but really it was about three or four things that were just my obsessions at the time.
In a general way, I realized that I had a lot to say about this stuff. What I realized in a specific way was, people were saying, “Okay, enough with e-mails about your Quicksilver tricks. Why don't you go put this on a blog somewhere?” What's that term they use on Metafilter? GYOB… F? And I did, and I think that's how it started. I remember a specific conversation with Doug Bowman, the guy who does Stopdesign. We were at lunch one day, and I showed him all this stuff on Quicksilver, and it was like making a lady disappear. Quicksilver's like a magic trick, if you've never seen it. He was like, “You should write all this down somewhere, 'cause this doesn't exist.” There was no book for Quicksilver. I wanted a parking lot to put all that stuff in.
This all sounds ridiculous in retrospect, since blogs have become such a thing. But in 2004, blogs were just blogs. There were breakout superstars from the beginning — you look at something like Bifurcated Rivets, Jorn Barger's Robot Wisdom, Brunching Shuttlecocks, there were amazing blogs in the early days — but it wasn't like a business. I had tons of web properties of one kind or another since 1995, and this was just another one. One day I started a Typepad account, turned this thing on and started posting.
We've gone over how successful —
It's been moderately successful. It's easy to see this from the outside and say, you know, “Blah, blah,” but it's a blog. A few people look at it. It's not frickin' Candide. It's a blog.
By blog standards, it became successful —
Oh, I gotta tell you, Colin, blog standards, that's a high bar.
We'll get to blog standards, sir, I'll assure you that. But 43Folders in its original iteration gets popular, we'll say that —
It kind of rocketed up within three or four months. I had signed my part of a book deal within less than a month. This really went fast. It was completely overwhelming, absolutely overwhelming.
I'll draw a bit of an analogy, and it's going to be a strained one, but on the episode of the E! True Hollywood Story about the New Kids on the Block, I believe Donnie Walhberg is quoted to remark that the New Kids also became very successful quite quickly, and then they became even more successful. “At one point,” Donnie says, “with all the merchandising, we looked down the hallway and saw marbles rolling toward us with our faces inside the marbles. That's how far the merchandising had gone. It seemed so weird. So wrong.” Did there come a point where you had a your-face-in-the-marble moment where you thoughts, “Something has gone a little wrong here”?
Thank god I turned almost all that stuff down. I'm the first to admit that I've tried a lot of squirrely things to make money with the site and abandoned pretty much all of them, except advertising. The funny part is what I rejected. The face in the marble for me was, I was contacted by a very well-known maker of fancy things to put in your pockets and briefcase. I did this thing called the “Hipster PDA,” which is just a stack of index cards and a binder clip. It was kind of a joke, but like a lot of what I do, it was a joke and not. I was contacted by this company who said, “This is what we wanna do: we wanna make a branded thing to hold the index cards, and then we're gonna make branded 43Folders cards.”
You laugh, but these exist now. This company makes that; they just don't call it that. Without acknowledging me at all. Not that they need to; part of the joke is that it's just index cards. But indeed, it is just index cards. The whole notion was to take a commodity you can pick up at a drug store. The way that idea became powerful to me, or became “sticky,” was that it's a way of saying, “I have everything I need to do something awesome right now. I don't need a fancy notebook.” I do like those fancy notebooks. I used to love those fancy Italian notebooks you mentioned, but at the same time, I think a lot of it is about having everything I need to at least get started. Everything I need to do a little bit of work on something that I care about.
But yeah, it became crazy. The part that became most vexing was the P.R. people. That's what started to drive me nuts. This sounds like a first-world problem, but if you think about it, it's really not: it's weird when you're not sure who your friends are anymore. When you're being contacted by people who are acting all nice, and if your self esteem is as weird as mine, you tend to play along for a while. Then you realize they're just trying to get you to link to 'em. If you're not big by blog standards, that doesn't sound like a big deal, but that does not scale. It's just frustrating, and I see people like Matt Haughey facing this now. I mentioned Jesse [Thorn] gets this on some level.
It doesn't cost anything to, basically, be a dick. You can go and waste a lot of peoples' time and attention for completely selfish reasons, and then be very high-handed about it. I'm kind of trying to do the opposite. I'm trying to, hopefully, not waste peoples' time, and also be very accepting of the fact that what I do is not for everybody. That was the face-in-the-marble part, being confronted with this surfeit of incredibly selfish people who just wanted to sell something and didn't care at all about my audience or me.
I never thought what I did was really bad; I've always been pretty proud of what I did. It's easy to read what I've written and think I have bad self-esteem, but I don't. I like my work. You work is always in context with other work, and so for me, what I was doing in 2005 was pretty good, but by 2006 or 2007, there were so many people doing the same thing I did but really badly that I started to feel like I was living in a mad neighborhood. I just wanted to reject out of hand so much of the stuff that would associate me with these carpetbaggers. It's weird. In a lot of ways — it was Donnie, right? Not Mark?
Mark Wahlberg was, of course, not in the band. Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch.
He was allied with them, though. Did they tour, or… ?
Oh, maybe. You're getting into territory I am not qualified to speak to.
I remember Donnie was in that movie. He was really good. In the beginning of that movie…
The Sixth Sense.
The Sixth Sense. Exactly. He was great in that.
Turns out Bruce Willis is a ghost.
Aw, c'mon! Spoiler alert!
Statute of limitations!
Oh, do you have a sense of that? Is there a sense, for you, of when the statute of limitations on a spoiler runs out?
Here's what I think about spoilers: I can give away spoilers as much as I want, because if a narrative is truly ruined by revealing the plot points, that's a bad narrative.
That's a Gene Siskel point, right? Maybe it's a similar point. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were forever talking about this. You know what? It's different. Gene Siskel would say, if your entire plot turns on an extremely simple misunderstanding, you probably have a problem. Two hours is a long time to, like, watch a magic trick. Although I'll tell you, my friend, I've watched a lot of Law & Order. I'm pretty good at knowing how clues get telegraphed. Sixth Sense? I had no idea. No idea. They totally had me.
Too bad the wad was shot after that, for M. Night Shyamalan.
Am I correct in saying that he continues to make movies where, basically, there's a trick?
To an extent. It seems like he's tried to get away from it, but I've stopped watching them at this point.
How's this for a statute of limitations: if a Friday Fresh Air with Dave Davies has an archived interview to celebrate the DVD re-release of a movie, you're officially absolved.
I like it. I think we're going with that.
What would we call that? The “Davies Window”?
I was going to use “Davies,” certainly. “Davy's Law”?
It's “Dave Davies,” right? He's named after one of the Kinks. Dave Davies, right?
… yes. My expertise is failing me at this point, I'm afraid.
Aw, c'mon. Aren't you a big Fresh Air nerd?
I'm going to make an admission: I don't listen to Fresh Air.
I used to. It drives me crazy now.
I know your favorite program is StoryCorps.
Oh, I love StoryCorps. They talk to elderly people and make them cry.
We're getting so off topic, but let's go for it anyway —
No, this is exactly on.
— I was hearing This American Life. I don't listen to much StoryCorps, and I would always hear you rag on it. I'd hear Jesse talk about how much you hate StoryCorps and think, “Oh, could StoryCorps be so bad?” Then I heard a This American Life that lifted some StoryCorps, and it was the story of a New York bus driver talking about how he picked up “an old lady who didn't know where she was.” So he “drove the bus like a limo” and he found the old lady's old-person meetup. “That old lady said it was the best day she's ever had, even though she'd just been diagnosed with cancer.”
See? There was a twist. They took it and they turned it. That's good.
This is parodically maudlin. I can't believe it.
You know why that became a TAL story? The TAL's story's go to have the double twist, right? You gotta have the guy who sounds a little bit like Ira Glass doing it. Then, there a twist. You go, “Ooh,” then the music changes and they play the DJ Shadow. You know that's twist one. Then there's a little more talking, then there's a pause, and there's a little bit of Yo La Tengo. Then they come back, and there's more talking, and then there's the kind of disclosing producer part of the show. They're like, “I wasn't even sure by this time. The yard had been empty for six weeks, and all the robots had gone home. I wasn't sure what to do at this point.” Then they get a little bit more of the music, and then you get the second twist. Right?
Yeah, but on StoryCorps, the twist is usually “old person has cancer.”
There's no twist! There's no twist! It's a completely sanitized, sentimental version of the past that has none of the teeth or texture of adult life's complexities. It's a completely maudlin attempt to cash in on middle-aged people in fleece who don't have much of an emotional interior world. Here we go. Here's my lyrics I wrote for you. Ready?
StoryCorps! StoryCorps! I wonder what that story's for? StoryCorps! StoryCorps!
That's how it goes. It's the lyrics I wrote.
I sing it every time it comes on. I'm still kind of working it out, but —
Oh, my. We've got to get back on the rails.
It's a business, Colin. It's a business! They're not just doing that because they love old people. It's a business! They sell books. Any time somebody's in a position to make you feel something emotionally, you have to ask yourself what they get out of it. If what they get out of it is, it means a lot to them to tell a story, that's great. But what I hear is, every Friday they sit around in a bus and make immigrants cry. I don't think that's storytelling. Once you've seen The Wire, you're spoiled for life. Now I expect people to tell me a complicated story. You'll cut all this out, right? You'll cut this out.
The fascinating thing here, talking about the arc of 43Folders, is that there's been, as the teeming millions of Merlin Mann fans we've discussed know, there's been a change in direction. You decided to take it in a new direction, moving it from, I would say, a blog about productivity, a blog with productivity tips, tips about doing stuff in the abstract, to how stuff is actually done concretely. Would that be a good way to put it?
Yes, that's one part of it. There's actually a lot of changes that happened, as I look back in retrospect, but here's the thing, just for your audience who doesn't follow this kind of nonsense. A blog started out as this idea of being a public journal, where you posted links and you posted ideas and you said things. It was personal publishing made easy. But by the mid-2000s, it became very profitable to generate a lot of page views and get a large audience by posting very often, throughout the day. Let's not mince words: you could make a lot of money from a blog. Something like TechCrunch started as a blog. It's a business, but still. Now we're at the point where you hire writers. The whole way this racket works is, you post a lot and you get people to come and look at as many pages as possible, because those ads are how you get paid. That's not a criticism; that's how it works. Anyone who says otherwise is mostly lying.
I did that, and I made pretty good dough off of it. I was with a company, until recently, that has been really good to me in terms of getting ads that people charge a lot for. First of all, I decided that I didn't necessarily want to be an ad salesman for the rest of my life. I didn't want to have to form my work around the idea that the only way I can feed my daughter and my wife and me was to post a lot of whatever for whoever. I did not like that.
Second, I didn't like the topics that I was encouraged to post about. People wanted nonsense. People wanted something to distract them for a little while. That's something I increasingly was uncomfortable doing. I kind of did two things at once. Some of those changes are only starting to happen now. I've moved to a different ad company; I have basically one ad on the page. And I'm posting when I feel like it. I don't feel any pressure at all to post anything at any time. Again, I'm not trying to sound like a hero or something; that's where my head is. There's places I want to spend my time other than churning out a lot of stuff that I've half thought about.
By the way, the change in the visual look of the page? Love it.
That's an experiment. Are you nerdy about HTML at all?
I'm nerdy about HTML to the extent that I have to use it to get my podcasts up. I can't say I'm greatly knowledgeable.
What happened was, my friend Chris Glass did a beautiful design for the site where it looked like a big file folder. I still love that design, but I'd been playing around with the idea of taking everything off the page except what has to be there. So I have a very white page right now. It doesn't even have a logo on it. I have this fantasy of having the page look almost like a piece of paper. I'd like it to eventually become an essay on a page.
I like it. I should tell you that I have a masochistically Spartan taste in web sites. The more simple and the fewer things you can see on it, the better to me.
I must tell you that — I hope this doesn't sound provocative, but — I don't sweat hypocrisy a lot. I think it's something people worry about way too much because they don't want to be seen as a hypocrite, but I don't sweat hypocrisy. The one thing I will say is, it's a little bit hypocritical of me to churn out a high volume of nonsense about managing your attention with a circus of visual things flitting around it. At a certain point, I started to realize that was incongruent.
So yeah, if I have a site that says your attention is valuable and you need to take care of that, I'm going to have to find ways to make money that don't involve making people click a million things. That's just me. That's not a judgment, just a way of saying that, for myself, that's a decision I had to make. That design will be gussied up at some point, but I kind of like the idea of — have you ever had that fantasy of taking everything out of your house and just kind of starting over?
Indeed. Who hasn't?
I know! Get a moving truck and guys to take out everything except your coffee pot and your bed and just say, “Okay, as I need this over the next five days, bring it in. If I don't need it after five days, take it to Goodwill.” That's kind of how I felt about the design.
The other thing you'd asked about is the change in what I write about. The overt difference for me is, I've always known in my head that this productivity stuff should be about cleaning off your desk in order to do great work. The trouble is, if you're constantly writing about the clearing-off of that desk, you're not really making anything. I really liked the idea of thinking about what you do, what you make. You know, in Spanish: hacer. What is it you're going to make and do as a result of all that new productivity?
I have to be dead honest with you: I think most people just do more nonsense. I don't want to do that. I don't want to do that for myself, and I don't want to encourage that in others. Again, I don't want to be an ad merchant and I don't want to spend the rest of my life talking about notebooks. I want to talk about how people that I really respect are going to do great work. Like I say, if that involves Excel or if that involves making a painting, whatever. There's fascinating people doing great things, and I'm slowly becoming a better student of that. It is all new to me. That's the big change, getting away from what I call “productivity porn” and getting more into the idea of how to get a long-lived creative career based on that productivity.
This turn in 43Folders has been a change from a site that I found very interesting before, with lots of fascinating things posted to it. Now it's a place where some of the most resonant ideas I've heard in recent years have been posted. One of my favorite things I've read on the internet was actually your post “Better“, which is one of the main planks — if I'm going to mix a few metaphors — of the turning of the site.
Absolutely. Having written that was a huge influence on getting to rethink the way think about almost everything.
Could you tell us a little bit about, specifically, writing that piece? This is emblematic of the change in the site and in you. What was the process of writing that? Was it an impulse or something you had to let churn?
No, I wrote it in a few minutes, and it's absolutely one of my favorite things I've ever written. For better or for worse, it's really how I felt. Just to be really honest, it was during the run-up to the election in 2008. I felt like I was losing it. I was so overwhelmed by so much nonsense. Everything was just crazy nonsense. Everywhere. People speculating about things and spreading rumors. Everybody I knew had some kind of giant opinion they had to share all the time, and it made me aware of how much excess there is in all these areas of my life, in the media I consume.
I don't mean to sound like one of those “I don't watch TV guys,” because I am — I do all kinds of dumb stuff all day long. But I started to realize that I and all the people around me were becoming very hard and cynical as a result of churning out this constant supply of new opinions about everything. I felt like I was becoming overwhelmed by getting way more information than I needed about a few topics with very little subtlety and tonality and craft. The combination of Twitter plus the election became too much for me. I realized I wasn't enjoying it. I realized that me and the people I knew were not doing good work with it. It became like a non-nutritional diet.
In the “Better” essay, which is just a short kind of rant, I had this thing where I was like, “I want to do less stuff better.” I don't mean it as a Martin Luther kind of thing. It's more of a philosophical approach, of saying, “If we all just tried a little bit harder and we thought just a little bit more and we became less obsessed with clicking the buttons that make information move around and thought a little bit more about how our thinking and our cognition and our behavior and our decisionmaking changes as a result of that information.”
I've asked a dozen of my friends, “How many times did you change you mind about who you were going to vote for during the election?” They all say, “Oh, I knew all along.” I was like, “Then why were you reloading Huffington Post 40 times a day?” This is really the crux of where my brain is on this stuff right now. How do you know when you have enough information to do something? I really feel like that combination of little, easy motor skills and clicking combined with feeling a little less bored for a minute is completely addictive to people.
When the main way we communicate with each other is through all these things — and I'm not saying, “Don't use Facebook, don't use Twitter.” What I am saying is, if you're not mindful about the amount of your attention that goes to thinking about and consuming those things, you're not going to be making good stuff, either for that medium or elsewhere. That's what I got kind of hung up on, when I finally realized that all I was doing was eating and producing potato chips all day long.
When I read the piece “Better”, I couldn't help but clench my fist in victory that I'd read something that'd articulated, better, a point I'd tried to impress on friends, which is: look, we're all going to die some day. Nobody who is not immortal has time to read a shovelblog.
Yes. It's true. This stuff is complicated. I'm not saying, “Don't have fun.” I'm not even saying, “Don't waste time.” All I'm saying is, be aware. Be, to a certain extent, mindful. If you don't ask yourself how much information you need to do what you need to do, you'll never know when you're done. You're just going to keep drinking water until your kidneys explode.
I agree with you, though. I think a lot of the solutions people have offered for this stuff is along the range of either, “Welp, adapt. You're just gonna have to learn to SMS for 21 hours a day.” Or at the other end, you go, “Oh, well I'm just going to throw away my computer and my TV and sit on a mat and think.” Well, it's neither one of those. Life's complicated. This is just Buddhism 101, really: the only way you're going to survive in this world and any other is to keep your head in the moment and to become aware about what it is that really matters to you and how the stuff you do relates to that. That's all I'm saying.
I don't know if I'd call it ironic, but it is funny that it was actually a tweet that resonated with so many people and made them take, from what I understand, a long, hard look in the mirror when you wrote about the obese man who eats cookie dough and complains that Runner's World hasn't given him enough “tips.”
It's absolutely true. There's all these people sitting around, and if you read these blogs and the comments, it's like — I got so many nasty notes from “fans” about how I wasn't feeding their need for more tips. I'm grateful that people like what I do, but I'm also becoming increasingly confrontational with people who go, “I can't wait 'til this new thing comes out!” Whether that's an Apple tablet or a new release of a text editor or whatever. I increasingly will say to them, “What are you unable to make today with what you've got?” Or, put differently, “What' the best thing you make last year that you're really proud of and how will this help you do that again?”
You're absolutely right. You're gonna die. You're gonna die. And nobody's gonna care which version of the iPhone you used to make something on Twitter, or to go and post about your bowel movement on Facebook. And I'm not even talking about legacy; I'm talking about the fact that I personally feel most alive when I'm making something, and I feel least alive when I'm being led around by some obnoxious use of my attention that I wasn't aware of. To me, that's the thing. You can buy the jogging shoes and you can buy the Runner's World, but until you put them on and walk out the door every day, you're just a fat man.
There's no amount of information that's going to take the place of putting on the shoes and starting to move a little bit. And you're not really doing Tae Kwan Do unless you're kicking people. Reading all the sex manuals in the world is not going to do anything unless you're touching genitals. Otherwise, you're just reading. But it's painful. People get mad when you say that, because we derive a lot of our self-esteem and satisfaction out of these things that we choose to consume. I'm not even talking about Pepsi. I'm talking about blogs, and I'm talking about Facebook. I'm talking about MySpace and what widgets you put where. We form our identity through all these alliances we build, and for a lot of people to say to them, “Well, what are you making as a result of that?”, what they're making is a different version of their personality every day. That's fine as long as that's what they want to do, but when you're 60, are you going to be happy that that's where your youth went?
One of the points I've distilled from your recent material on 43Folders and elsewhere is that, if you're going to pile all of your focus into an area, pile it into making good things. I don't want to say the rest takes care of itself automatically, but it seems pretty darn close to it. For example — I don't know how meta I wanna get here, but — with this program, which is equally a radio show and a podcast, I only have one goal. The goal is to make good conversations, conversations as many people will want to hear as possible. I think to myself, if I just concentrate on that, just look at that bullseye, it's going to be okay. Is that, to your mind, a perspective that works, or one lacking nuance?
I think it's not. It sounds cynical when I say this, but I'm not saying that all you have to do is produce great work and you'll become successful. I'm not saying that at all. What I will say is, it's certainly a great first step. Before you worry about your your logo and marketing budget, start worrying about what you do that is truly and uniquely your own. That's one part of the success of this stuff that's so funny. People will seem to emulate the “success” of other people instead of trying to figure out what they're uniquely capable of, which is something most of us did when we were teenagers. Personally, I don't want to be somebody in my 40s trying to figure out how to be the next x person.
It's no different from carving your coconut headphones, like the cargo cult.
Right, it's a cargo cult in a lot of ways. I think you're on the right track, and I think the other part of it is specificity. Figure out what your voice is so you can know when it is your voice or not. I also really like the idea of not being afraid to have an obsession that you follow. If you're a generalist, you're going ot have a lot of competition among people who are more polished generalists. But if you're very specific, you're going to have a lot more time to find your own way.
It's also a great business opportunity, you know what I mean? With the internet in particular, say you live in a small town. You're not going to start a comic shop that's just about Marvel comics. And you're certainly not going to start a comic shop that's just about one X-Man who died a long time ago. But on the internet, you can become, like, the dude for this very specific thing. It's a genuinely unique opportunity. And then really trying to polish that.
That's the other side of the blog stuff that's painful for me. Sometimes I feel like everything I do is a first draft. We really excuse a lot of our own lack of happiness and success by saying we're too busy with other things, and so for me a lot of this becomes, “Okay, how do I get rid of all that other stuff and do the thing that I'm kind of scared to be great at?” For most people, that's a terrifying prospect, the idea that they can't just apologize away how much they suck at something because they're busy answering e-mail. E-mail and Blackberry and all that stuff becomes a giant excuse for everything. It's a way to say, “I don't have time to try to be great, 'cause I'm too 'busy.'”
One reason I am so hard on things like e-mail is that when I talk to really successful people, either financially or artistically, the pattern I've seen is that most people become great at what they do based on hard work, but based on making great decisions and on having great relationships. That's just my own observation. To me, you have a happy life based on good decisions and good relationships, and to the extent that anything you do helps to build that, you're on the right track, but to the extent you're just turning a crank for reasons you're not entirely sure of, you're just wasting your time. Knowing people like you, knowing people like Jesse Thorn, Jonathan Coulton — knowing people doing work that's orthogonal to what I do, it's just been fantastic for me. I meet more great people, I get great input on what I do, and I start feeling like I'm truly part of a community of people who get me. And I get them. E-mails with those guys? Fantastic. E-mails with somebody who wants me to link to their site? Not so great.
There's a frame of mind that is somewhat connected to this subject, which is the shift from — anybody who starts an internet thing, whether it be a blog like yours or a radio show with conversations, they do seem to start out saying, “I just want as many eyeballs as I can get. I want as many ears as I can get. I want as many heads that are sensate that I can get watching, listening to, smelling whatever I'm making.” This is something you said in a podcast with Jon Gruber: it's not necessarily to your advantage to want the masses. You want the cool people. Now, that's a caricature —
I know what you're saying, though.
Did you start out wanting the cool people?
Let's be honest. It's easy for me, in retrospect, to go, “Oh no, I never wanted to be…” No, I check my stats all the time. I'm completely self-involved. I care about that stuff. I like being well thought-of. I'm not an idiot. My feeling is, you have to figure out who you want to delight. If you want to delight everybody, that's going to have an effect on the kind of stuff you do. It's not a bad thing at all. Look at somebody like Oprah. She's had tremendous success. She seems like a genuinely happy person. She likes doing what she does.
Now, do you want to try to go out and be Oprah? That's going to be hard, because there's already an Oprah, to paraphrase Ira Glass. What's the point of this all? I think that you will have a better and more effective response if you understand who's looking at your stuff, and if you understand that you're speaking to people when you write something. That sounds so dumb and it seems so obvious, but you're speaking to another person. To the extent that you can be yourself and talk to somebody as themselves, that's what great writing is.
There's a certain kind of stentorian writing, speechwriting, where you're addressing a Zola-esque crowd of people. But by and large — I was watching that Bill Murray movie, Where the Buffalo Roam, the Hunter S. Thompson movie, which is actually a pretty great little funny sleeper cult movie. I thought about what it is that people emulate about Hunter S. Thompson. Obviously, people ape his persona as this drug-addled guy, and they ape the guns and the funny glasses and the funny hat. And they're just tracing shadows. What made Hunter Thompson Hunter Thompson to me was, he did have a unique voice. The way he wrote was unlike anybody else. Almost everything Hunter S. Thompson wrote sounded like he was slightly drunk and writing to somebody he liked in a very desperate, keening way. Like he had to finish this because there was so much he had to say, and he was just exploding with energy. That's the kind of writing I want to do. I don't want to be Hunter S. Thompson. You know what I'm saying, though?
Indeed I do. Things seem to be pointing in this direction, with all we've talked about doing well, about making good stuff, about not networking but establishing actual relationships: how much of the core of this is honesty with oneself?
I think it's part of it. Part of it's also just practicality. Again, I'm not trying to say I'm particularly great at any of this, but I will say that one reason I don't sweat branding is, I'm a terrible liar. It would be very hard for me to pretend I'm somebody I'm not. Believe me, this is to my peril. It would be so much easier if I just pretended to life 500,000 people on Twitter, but I don't want to. I read Twitter, because I want to read what people I like are saying. I don't do it to make you like me; I do it because I like you. That's a disarming, annoying thought to some people.
Gosh, why would you ever try to pretend to be somebody else instead of trying to figure our who you are? You keep trying to find a better-fitting mask. That sounds like California hippie B.S., but that's the game, guys. That's what this stuff is about. Here's the funny part of all this, though: this doesn't mean you have to sit there and be some ascetic monk. I drink a lot and I'm crazy and I curse and I whatever and I make dumb mistakes. I'm a human being. But the truth is, I've been able to attract a pretty broad audience for what I do by being very specific about who I want to reach.
There's a funny self-selecting bias that delights me. I love when I post something on Twitter and a bunch of people unfollow me. It delights me, because that is the sound of my audience getting better. If somebody doesn't like what I said and leaves, first of all, good on ya for being too busy to follow this nonsense. But B, it tells me that — if I were always saying things that delighted everybody, I would know that I'm way off track. Louis Althusser talked about this idea of interpolation inhaling, like, how do you know when somebody's talking to you? How do you know that a message is to you? In the very same way that a message CC'ed to 50 people will generally get a response from none of them, I think that when you speak to no one in particular, that's exactly who's going to listen.
If I speak to somebody in my own voice, they can make their own decision about whether they want to listen and follow along. But the voice will be unmistakable. To me, that's where the value is. The internet is empowering this in a way that was inconceivable 20 years ago, so i don't know why you would just think of it as free marketing instead of an opportunity to figure out who you are in public.
There's an element here of freeing yourself from the walking-on-eggshells mode, where one desperately does not want to lose a single member of one's audience, and thus loses a huge chunk of them because they're not saying anything fascinating.
I think it's smart, though; it's something I do want to get better at. As I do things that are meant to reach a broader audience, I can't afford that. This is really what people don't get: when you have a smaller audience, you can say a lot more controversial stuff. But the broader your audience gets — gosh, just look at all the “journalists” who are getting fact-checked by people. They forget how many people think of themselves as content creators and smart people. The broader your audience gets, the more you're really got to watch what you say.
You've got to think a lot harder, make sure your facts are in order and be careful not to go offend people. I offend — I don't want to say “religious people” — I offend overly pious people who are more obsessed with religion than god. People who've actually read the Bible and like the idea of god more than religion think I'm a stitch. If I had a nationally syndicated radio show, I couldn't make cracks about Leviticus, because my advertisers would drop off. In the same way you have to think about who you want to delight in terms of your audience, you also have to think about — again, this is very much a The Wire kind of concept, but — what system are you beholden to? If you derive a lot of your income from large amounts of network ads or nationally syndicated stuff, you gotta be careful. There's a reason anything I've said there that's, like, a bad word, you're going to have to bleep. You can't put that on the radio.
Well, there's a certain list —
That's not a criticism, but do you follow? Even in a medium that's as open as your own, you've got people you've got to please. You're going to have to edit this for length. You've got to make decisions. To act like those decisions don't exist is ludicrous.
I was discussing your imminent appearance on this program with a friend who is also into what you've been writing and talking about lately. He did mention that he wanted to hear you speak about, when somebody has discovered what their breed of superpower is, when they know what they can do well — how much have you thought about how they might go about making that pay the bills?
It's something I get asked a lot, to the extent that I'm now thinking I should make it into some kind of presentation. There's no one answer for that. The answer, in some ways, comes down to you. There's books about this, there's that Four Hour Workweek book that I shouldn't get into. You know, that guy cheats at martial arts. He could almost beat my ass, probably.
What does he, push them out of the circle?
He pushes them out, yes. He's actually a really nice guy. I don't care much for his book, but he's a very nice guy.
First of all, you have to ask yourself if that's what you really want to do. I do this podcast, You Look Nice Today, and I went to Portland and Seattle with Jesse Thorn's Jordan, Jesse, Go! group and my You Look Nice Today group. Long story short, we went to a comedy festival, and I met all these comics and all these people trying to be successful in comedy: all these agents and, you know. I had this weird breakthrough where what I thought I wanted to do was make appearances at places like that, and I so disliked a giant majority of the people I met that I realized, “Wow, I'm glad I learned about this early on.” Do you know what I mean?
You got a touch of the oven burner without actually holding your hand to it.
Kind of! I guess I had this idea in my head — it's always so funny when I meet comics and they're not funny, or they're just very serious and morose and more career-driven than most people in history. My perception of it was that it's just a giant status game, and there's a lot of name-dropping and there's a lot of backstabbing. I thought, “Wow, this is not funny! Or fun! Why would I want to be around this?” It really made me rethink how I want to interact with that kind of work.
Why am I telling you this? Because this happens all the time. People who are like, “I wanted to be a doctor since I was five” or, “I always wanted to be a lawyer.” I have a lot of friends who became lawyers and hated it. There's no reason to think that your own career in the arts or personal publishing is any different. Make sure it's what you want to do. Make sure that you really have a lot to say about something, and that you have a giant amount of tolerance for, first of all, making no money — for it actually costing money for a while. If you want to do this stuff right, you're going to have to hire lawyers and stuff. And it's costly. It seems free because you can get a free blogger account, but ask anybody who's trying to make this scale, and it takes dough. It takes a lot of patience and it takes a lot of self-awareness to be open to the fact that you may become popular about something that you didn't want to become popular about. At a certain point, you don't get to pick that anymore.
It sounds like it takes some vigilance to avoid falling in with the crowd who does not care about making good things.
I wouldn't put it that way, personally. That sounds like something I would definitely say, but if I were giving advice to people — first of all, there's certain books I keep coming back to. This book On Writing by Stephen King was so inspirational to me. I'm not a giant fan of his novels, but I love this book. I just walked away with a huge amount of respect for Stephen King because, I don't know if he still does this today, but Stephen King writes 2,000 or 3,000 words a day. That's his job. Sure, he also makes a shit-ton of money, but you know what? He sits down, and he knows he's done when he's written 2,000 words, and if he doesn't, he keeps writing.
It's a craft. It's a craft and it's a job. And I think, for all of this stuff, to get out of this idea of saying, “Oh, it's free money on the internet” and increasingly get more into the idea of, “It's a way for me to become good at something I care about in public,” if you find a way to make money doing that, you're going to live the dream. But if you just keep focusing to the money part of it to the exclusion of keeping your life in order or to the exclusion of actually getting great at it, it'll get in the way. You ever have friends who got signed to a label? Like, their band? Do you know anybody where that turned out well?
No! It uniformly goes terrible. So be careful what success you really want. For me, I've got almost exactly as much success as I'll ever want. I would not want to be any more well-known than I am right this minute.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.